by David M. Roth
For most of his 55-year career, Stephen Kaltenbach has been teasing, taunting and visualizing death. Along the way, he’s made art under various aliases, propagated hoaxes and lies, parodied the conceits of 1960s Conceptualism, engaged in guerilla actions and street works, and created paintings, sculptures, installations and public art. While many of these efforts challenged traditional attitudes and approaches toward making art, mortality has always been Kaltenbach’s abiding concern. What Death Does: Time, Scale and Anonymity, a compact, superbly annotated show at Verge Center for the Arts, pulls together works from across Kaltenbach’s career. Together, they show why he remains among the world’s foremost conceptualists — despite his attempts to vanish into obscurity.1
While parts of this show, co-curated by Richard Haley and Liv Mo, Verge’s founding director, replicate those seen in a 2020 retrospective at the Manetti Shrem Museum, it delivers critical elements not included in that exhibition, the most notable being the artist’s perception-challenging stage sets. Here, the show’s centerpiece (and title piece) consists of a well-furnished living room drenched in fierce downpour of fake rain. It falls from an overhead sprinklers without puddling, leaving viewers to ponder the engineering that enabled that feat, the furnishings (mission-style sofa, Kilim, vintage armchair, light fixtures, a cabinet, tables, books) being destroyed, the length of time before mold sets in, and how long it might take before the whole thing disintegrates, drip-by-drip.
By positing an unknowable metric whose only real-world equivalent is geologic time, Kaltenbach focuses attention on the insignificance of our existence within the larger scheme of things. More significantly, he erases the distinction between inanimate objects and humans by employing a house, a shared dream metaphor for the self. And, lest anyone miss the point, the artist installed on a wall directly opposite the set, a wall-mounted sculpture called Time #7 (1969-2023), attributed to his friend, Lee Lozanzo (1930-1999), consisting of lengths string affixed to nails in the shape of an elongated hourglass, which Kaltenbach periodically revises.
While timespans such as those intimated in What Death Does (2019-present) are unfathomable, Kaltenbach summons others that are readily understood. Heartbeat (2001) is a computer monitor that displays a live countdown of the time the artist will live if he survives as long as his mother. By that measure, Kaltenbach, now 83, has less than six months left based on the number of seconds shown — 12,736,443 when I visited.
An ongoing series called Time Capsules, represented by a hollow steel disc titled Moment (1970), ranks among Kaltenbach’s most noted works, owing to the fact that their contents have never been revealed.2 One of the most famous examples, for example, carried the inscription, “OPEN AFTER MY DEATH.” But to do that, you’d have to destroy the work, something no collector or curator has ever dared to do. Thus, the mystery of what’s inside these objects endures. Deepening the intrigue, Haley, the co-curator, is said to have correctly guessed the contents of one such piece – a dubious claim, given Kaltenbach’s penchant for trickery. Another act of equal repute, described in a document displayed here amongst many in a vitrine, involved John Perrault, the Village Voice critic, who wrote about an artwork he supposedly saw after speaking to Kaltenbach at a party. The only “problem” was: the work didn’t exist, nor did Kaltenbach intend to make it. The scheme was undertaken in the belief that distinctions between truth and fakery were beside the point and that the ideas held more sway than objects. Later, Kaltenbach seemed to repudiate that notion by pushing it into the realm of the absurd when he submitted a blank index card (with the words “No information available”) to a 1970 exhibition Lucy Lippard curated in Vancouver.
To contest notions of authorship and ownership, another conceptualist preoccupation, Kaltenbach collected and presented a mound of fingernail clippings and calluses (Mortal Remains, 1969-2017), maintaining it belonged to Lozano. Lozano’s heirs denied the claim, which, in the absence of DNA testing, can’t be contested. Likewise, at a time when many of his peers were following the postminimalist edict to empty art of content and gesture, Kaltenbach tacked in the opposite direction by making intentionally bad representational paintings under the alias Es Que (his initials spelled out phonetically in Spanish). Here, the idea was to have Lord & Taylor sell the works as home decor, but the store declined. One example from the series, Silence (1968), of a wistful-looking young woman, exhibits about as much finesse as a lowly garage-sale find. Attempts at sculpture, executed under the pseudonym Clyde Dillon, fared similarly.
In a telling 1970 interview with Artforum, which the gallery reproduces, Kaltenbach, when asked whether text ads (“START A RUMOR,” “PERPETRATE A HOAX,” “BUILD A REPUTATION”) he placed anonymously in that magazine, dealt with his hangups, he said: “I was always a fantastic liar, and if I was not lying, I was exaggerating. I see it as the result of my inability to accept myself as I was, so I lied to make myself more interesting or to correct something in myself I saw as a fault. My inability to accept the act of falsifying was the hangup for me, and the ad was…claiming that I do lie and that it’s OK….” The irony is that by “lying,” Kaltenbach was exposing eternal truths – not just about himself, but about the artworld, then and now.3
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Stephen Kaltenbach: “What Death Does: Time, Scale and Anonymity” @ Verge Center for the Arts through September 17, 2023.
Photos: David M. Roth
- Between 1967 and 1970, Kaltenbach’s work appeared in every significant conceptual art exhibition mounted during that period. A list of those shows appears in my review of the artist’s 2020 retrospective at the Jan and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art, along with an account of his efforts to elude fame by becoming a regional artist — part of a premeditated, 50-year game plan.
- Moment belongs to the author’s wife. Its appearance here was a surprise, as it was previously on loan to the Muzeum Sztuki in Lodz, Poland, before being returned to Kaltenbach for restoration. The artist ultimately decided against doing so, as the damage (rust) demonstrated the effects of time.
- Artforum interview with Cindy Nesmer, November 1970.